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Rio Grande program to lose its vital funding

As Central New Mexico enters an unprecedented drought year, we are at risk of losing one of our most important tools for monitoring the health of the Rio Grande.

For the past quarter century, the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program – BEMP to its friends and supporters – has collected data on 160 miles of Rio Grande riverside. Formed through a partnership between the University of New Mexico and Bosque School, BEMP has also brought more than 100,000 K-12 students into the bosque, collecting important scientific data while learning about their natural world.

Students count bugs and measure fallen leaves and the depth to groundwater. The data helps us understand the evolution of the bosque, while they gain hands-on science experience.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the results. Students in my own program – the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program – have leveraged BEMP’s work to study the threatened riverside ecosystem.

But that is only the tip of the BEMP iceberg. Much of our understanding of how Albuquerque’s precious riverside ecosystem functions is due to the careful, diligent, ongoing data collection by BEMP staff and the students they bring to the bosque.

The threat to BEMP comes from a shift in federal priorities. For much of its life, BEMP has been dependent on the generosity of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that operates Cochiti Dam and carries the bulk of the responsibility for Rio Grande flood control. Corps funding provides two thirds of BEMP’s budget.

At the end of the current fiscal year, shifting budget priorities mean the Corps funding will go away. Without that money, BEMP’s staff will have to be cut from 16 scientists and educators to just five. The number of long-term monitoring sites will drop from 33 to 10. BEMP’s scientific importance, the thing that makes its data so valuable, lies in the continuity of its datasets. From a scientific and land management perspective, this would be a devastating loss.

But even more important may be the community value we all receive from the steady flow of K-12 students into the bosque – learning about science and the natural world firsthand. Some students would still get the BEMP experience, but far fewer.

Some have criticized the Corps for its decision to shift its funding away from BEMP, but I think that is unfair. Instead, we should praise the agency for the support it has provided for all these years. We all have benefitted from the Corps’ generosity.

We need to find a solution before the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30. In the long run, members of the state’s congressional delegation are pursuing alternative sources of funding. But, in the short term, the only option may be to impose on the generosity of the Corps for one more year while we put together sustainable, long-term funding.

Visiting the bosque one recent Saturday, as I watched river flows dropping because of this year’s drought, I was pondering the fate of the cottonwood. Former UNM Water Resources Program student Tom Heller used BEMP data to study how the groundwater beneath my feet declined as the river dropped – crucial to the fate and future of our beloved bosque. Without BEMP, we would not have known what Tom helped us learn.

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